Maria Edgeworth (1768-1849) was an Anglo-Irish writer and novelist. She was the eldest daughter of the first wife of Richard Lovell Edgeworth (1744–1817), a wealthy Irish landlord of a large estate in Co. Longford. He was an eccentric, radical, and inventive man, deeply interested in the practical applications of science and in education: his friends included Erasmus Darwin, Anna Laetitia Barbauld, and Thomas Day. His influence on Maria was profound; he frequently ‘edited’ her work (which involved cutting, correcting, and occasionally contributing passages), managed her literary career, and imparted to her many of his own enthusiasms. They wrote together Practical Education (1798), a treatise which owes much to Rousseau, although its tone is less theoretical.
Edgeworth spent her infancy in Ireland, received some schooling in England, and when she was 15 returned to live the rest of her life with her family in Ireland. Her first publication was Letters to Literary Ladies (1795), a plea for women’s education. From then on she wrote prolifically for some 40 years and established a high reputation. She visited London in 1803, when she was feted by the literary world, meeting, among others, Lord Byron, Sydney Smith, Joanna Baillie, and Henry Crabb Robinson. She visited Walter Scott in 1823, and he greatly admired her work, described her as ‘the great Maria’, and acknowledged his debt to her Irish novels in the preface to his ‘Waverley’ edition of 1829. Jane Austen sent her a copy of Emma and later admirers included Thomas Macaulay, W. M. Thackeray, John Ruskin, and Turgenev.
Edgeworth appears to have initiated, in Castle Rackrent, both the first fully developed regional novel and the first true historical novel in English, pointing the way to the historical/regional novels of Scott. The book is a satire on Anglo-Irish landlords, before the year 1782, showing the need for more responsible management by the Irish landowning class. Her writings fall into three groups: those based on Irish life (considered her finest), Castle Rackrent (1800) and The Absentee (first published in Tales of Fashionable Life in 1812) together with Ormond (1817); those depicting contemporary English society, such as Belinda (1801–2), notable for its controversial depiction of interracial marriage between a Black servant and an English farm girl. Although later editions of the novel removed these sections, Leonora (1806), Patronage (1814), and Helen (1834); and her many popular lessons and stories for and about children, including The Parent’s Assistant (1796-1800), Moral Tales (1801), Popular Tales (1804), and Harry and Lucy Concluded (1825). Marilyn Butler has written the standard biography, Maria Edgeworth (1972).